Clear Comm Consulting

The Everyday Misunderstandings Lurking in Your E-Mail

Jan 24, 2008

There is new research which shows just how easy it is to be misunderstood in the world of e-mail, and the results can be a little scary! The report contained in the January edition of the Academy of Management Review and written by Syracuse University professor Kristin Byron was previewed recently in Fast Company Magazine. Ms. Byron says, “People perceive e-mails as more negative than they are intended to be and even e-mails that are intended to be positive can be misinterpreted as more neutral.”

How many times have you asked yourself, “Well, what do they mean by that?” or “Gee, that seems kind of abrupt.” With no visual cues we can innocently misunderstand the writer’s intent, and according to this new research, we often think the worst.

One of the best examples I heard recently happened when an executive quickly forwarded an e-mail with this note at the top: “I resent this e-mail.” What he really meant to say was “I re-sent this e-mail,” but you can see how that tiny oversight can cause all kinds of problems! Employees were writing back to find out why he was so angry and trying to do damage control.

Multiply that story times the carelessly written messages contained in some of the 100 billion e-mails sent each day by more than a billion users and you can see the magnitude of the problem. (Not to mention the nearly one billion TEXT messages sent daily by my two teenagers alone!)

Solutions? We all need to realize the power of our words — even those dashed off on our Blackberry just before the doors close on the airplane! Taking an extra moment to add a greeting at the top or expressing a personal good wish goes a long way in avoiding the negative message we never intended to send.

Professor Byron suggests repeating the important information, use some of the same emotional cues you might use in everyday conversation and, when possible, spend some time face-to-face with people until you establish a better understanding of each other. Also, when you receive a questionable e-mail, ask for clarification or restate the intention of the e-mail to be sure there is no problem brewing. Byron adds, “…failure to accurately convey emotions inhibit relationships between co-workers or with clients and customers.”

Just think of how often a comment can be misunderstood in everyday conversation — then you can imagine how quickly that same issue can be magnified in the limited world of e-mail. You probably have some stories — send me your favorites.

Does your professional group need a speaker for a national or statewide conference? Please contact my office. I enjoy the opportunity and have references and rate information readily available.

Cary Pfeffer is the founder of ClearComm Consulting,, a Phoenix, AZ-based communications consulting firm which is helping people tell their story. He works with clients to make the most of their media and live audience communication. Email him at: [email protected]

Follow along with Cary on Twitter @CaryPfeffer

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